Language Matters: Proud to be a Slut

Some words provoke instant and strong reactions, affecting us at a deep, almost visceral level.  And when those words are challenged and their meanings turned upside down, it’s hard not to take notice.

The power of a word: Reclaiming “slut” (BBC, 9 May 2011)

It’s one of those words that doesn’t quite qualify as profanity, but you still probably wouldn’t want to use it at the dinner table.


Originally, the term was used to describe slovenly or dirty women, and evolved to mean women of loose or low character.  Today, while the dictionary still includes “prostitute” or “slovenly woman” as definitions for the word, it is almost always used in its connotative sense — to mean a promiscuous woman.

While there have been some attempts to reclaim the word by feminists and other progressive groups, it was not until a Toronto policeman advised women to not dress like sluts to avoid becoming victims of rape that the word grabbed significant media attention.

Protests called “Slutwalks” have appeared all over the United States, as well as Canada, the UK, and Australia in response to the policeman’s “slut-shaming” advice.

While the main message of these protests is to remind those who think like that Toronto policeman that rape is never the victim’s fault, that message is accompanied by a movement to take back the word “slut” and make it a positive, self-affirming term of unashamed sexuality.

With the signs reading, “Don’t tell women what to wear; Tell men not to rape,” and “A dress is not a yes,” women also held signs proudly proclaiming their status as sluts and refusing to accept that a slut is a bad thing to be.

Reclaiming the word is also a strike at the double standard of sexuality, in which a man is lauded for his sexual conquests and called a “stud,” but a woman is condemned and shamed for the same behavior.

Still, like other insults that have been reclaimed by the communities they originally put down (“queer” and “bitch,” for example), the word in its reclaimed, positive sense can only be used by those within that community.  If an “outsider” were to use it, even with good intentions, it could still be perceived as insulting.

What do you think about this issue?  Could “slut” become a sex-positive term used with pride, or is it too firmly rooted in its derogatory past?  Is it even a worthy cause to try to reclaim it?

Language Matters: LOLing at the OED

Language is undoubtedly a living, evolving thing.  And this is good, because otherwise we’d be stuck with a language from the Middle Ages to describe 21st century ideas.  But sometimes language can change in unexpected and potentially undesirable ways.

‘LOL’ added to the OED (BBC, 8 April 2011)

Raise your hand if you’ve used “LOL,” either online or in real life.

Wow!  That’s a lot of you.

I expected as much.

Still, some language purists have raised eyebrows at the recent decision to include “LOL” and “OMG” in the definitive book of the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The terms, as you might know, mean “laughing out loud” and “oh my god,” respectively.

Their ubiquity and the fact that they usually don’t need defining are what made them qualified to join the official ranks of our language.

Most people know them, many use them or have used them at some point, and even the most ardent “lol-haters” recognize their position in the language as a way of expressing amusement or a tongue-in-cheek appreciation of a joke in text or an online environment.

However, the inclusion of these terms in the official English language has led some to question whether the widespread use of such slang terms is harmful, especially for young people who are still developing their communication abilities.

Not so, say others.  In fact, it may actually be helpful.  Kids who use slang are engaging in code-switching, a linguistic task that involves using elements of two languages at the same time — something that bilingual people do.

This is not the first time that the language of the Internet has been given official sanction by the OED — the term “google” used as a verb was added in 2006.

What do you think about this issue?  Should “LOL” and “OMG” be counted as “real” words in English?  What about other Internet slang, like “BRB” or “ROFL”?  Why or why not?

Vocablets in the News: Making Friends with the Neighbors

What’s really going on in this Vocablet?  Let’s take a closer look at the story behind the snippet.

The Word:


The Story:

Queen Elizabeth II visits the Republic of Ireland (NPR, 17 May 2011)

I have to admit, United-States-centric American citizen that I am, I didn’t fully understand why the Queen’s visit to Ireland would be so important.  Yes, I’m aware of the history of bad blood between the two nations — rebellion and war do tend to strain relations — but I thought that surely these close neighbors had moved on enough to be civil, right?

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It turns out that some historical animosities run deep, and repairing relationships can take longer than expected.

Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the Republic of Ireland in May marked the first time a British monarch has visited the country since its independence.

The last visit was made by the Queen’s grandfather, George V, a century ago!


Why It Matters:

Some splinter groups, unhappy with the idea of a British monarch on Irish soil, planted real and hoax bombs in Dublin.  The threats were successfully defused, but the steps taken to protect the Queen on her trip still constituted the largest security operation in Ireland’s history.

In spite of these problems, the four-day visit represented a step forward for relations between the two countries, which have been slowly recovering from the decades-long grudge held on both sides following Ireland’s 1919-1921 war of independence.

The Queen’s vibrant green ensemble, no doubt chosen out of celebration and respect for the Emerald Isle, was a prominent visual symbol of Britain’s desire for friendship between the two nations.

Let’s just hope the Queen didn’t step on any Irish toes with her choice to decline to taste a perfectly poured pint of Guinness at Dublin’s famous brewery.


Making it Memorable:

What did YOU think when you saw this vocablet?  Do you have any ideas, thoughts, or stories about British/Irish relations or the monarchy?  How is this word and its story meaningful to you?

Looking for related Vocablets?  Try these studylists: Royalty & Tyrants, Countries & Regions

Language Matters: London gangstas say f**k the 5-0

Why bother with all this vocabulary stuff?  How is it relevant in the ‘real world’?  You might be surprised by how much the words you use affect the meaning of what you say.

The language behind the England riots (BBC, 12 August 2011)


Po po.

The 5-0.

These are just a few new words in the UK’s lexicon — all of them slang for the police — that traveled across the ocean from the United States with their hip hop and rap origins.

These are the "po po" according to rioters, even though they're not the same police that LA rappers were talking about when they invented the term.

These words, along with others of non-US origin (such as “yard” for home or “end” for part of a city), have drawn increased attention from the media because of the London riots.

While the words have changed meaning somewhat from their origins — the word “feds” obviously does not refer to the FBI when used in the UK — they carry a connotation that connects their users to a subculture that is known to hold contempt for police.

And they're not afraid to tell you how they feel.

In a similar way, when the media referred to “the community,” it was generally accepted that the term meant everyone who was not involved in the looting and riots.

Even the choice between the word “rioter,” which implies a political motivation, or “looter,” which implies simple theft, holds great weight in this situation.

Clearly, looters are the more reviled group.

These examples demonstrate the power of words and their importance in expressing meaning, especially when dealing with emotionally and politically controversial events around the world.

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!

Vocablets in the News: Sinking Islands

Let’s take a moment to dive deeper into a vocablet and get the whole story behind the snippet.


The Word:


The Story:

Islands are sinking into the ocean (BBC, 13 May 2011)??  What is going on here?

When I first saw this vocablet and its snippet, my thoughts went immediately to global warming and rising sea levels due to the melting of the polar ice cap.  Of course, that’s probably because I live in San Francisco, where the threat of serious damage due to flooding is being predicted for the next 100 years:

The blue and purple areas are vulnerable to flooding from sea level rise.

However, upon reading more about the islands, I learned that it’s not rising sea levels, scientists say, because the sea levels are rising at a lower rate in that region of the world compared to the global average.  Instead, scientists place the blame on the mining of coral reefs, which until 2002 had no regulations to protect the islands.

Beautiful formations like these are destroyed to make building materials and concrete.


 Why It Matters:

The islands were part of a group in the Gulf of Mannar that had been made a biosphere reserve by the Indian government in 1989.  Sadly, this means that, even though the islands were small, their sinking into the ocean means the loss of a huge amount of biodiversity.

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Also worrying is the fact that these islands work as a buffer for the mainland and saved many communities from destruction when the 2004 tsunami struck.

The loss of these islands should serve as a warning to those who have been abusing the gulf’s resources, and as a reminder that if people abuse natural resources instead of valuing and protecting them, they can disappear.


Making It Memorable:

What did YOU think when you saw this vocablet?  Do you have a story about submergence, sea level rise, or coral reef mining?  How is this word and its story meaningful to you?

Language Matters: How many words do you really need?

Why bother with all this vocabulary stuff?  How is it relevant in the Real World?  You might be surprised by how much the words you use affect the meaning of what you say.

English in 100 Words (BBC News, 29 March 2011)

An Italian soccer coach in England claimed that he could coach his players using only 100 words of English.  While this is clearly at least something of an exaggeration, it begs the question: how many words of a language do you need to know in order to communicate effectively?

Let's see, "run," "faster," "shoot," "ball," "goal..." yeah, that's enough.

Experts in this BBC article suggest that 1,500-2,000 words would make an “intermediate” level of language knowledge, but the average person’s vocabulary in their native tongue contains about 20,000 active words and 40,000 passive ones.

The point to remember might be that while a limited vocabulary may allow you to be understood, it takes far more to express yourself with richness and complexity.  After all, why call something “very good” or even “excellent” when you could call it “majestic“, “exquisite,” or “unparalleled“?

What do you think?  Let us know in the comments!